The Grammarphobia Blog

On the tarmac

Q: Why does the media insist on using “the tarmac” as a catchphrase for different areas of an airport: runways, aprons, taxiways? Tarmac is largely obsolete and hasn’t been used at airports for many years. For some reason this just bugs me.

A: You’re right technically, though it doesn’t pay to be too technical about this. English is a work in progress, and dictionaries are starting to accept “the tarmac” as the paved part of an airport where planes stop to take on or let off passengers.

But let’s back up a bit. In the early 1800s, a Scottish engineer named John Loudon McAdam developed a technique of road building using layers of small pieces of stone. This road surface was referred to as “macadam.”

In the early 20th century, an English surveyor named Edgar Purnell Hooley developed a technique for combining tar with macadam to produce a road-building material called tar macadam or tarmac.

Although tarmac was used extensively in the construction of airports during World War II, no major airport now uses it. The pavement at major airports is now usually asphalt or concrete.

(While we’re metaphorically waiting on the runway, check out our blog entries about “cement” and “concrete,” their meanings and their pronunciations.)

To get back to your question, a baggage handler or a language stickler would refer to the loading and unloading area at an airport as a ramp or an apron. But we think “the tarmac” is evolving and it’s not a crime for laymen to use it loosely for such an area.

Some dictionaries still restrict the term “tarmac” to paved areas made of tar macadam (or tarmacadam), but others now say it can refer generally to airport areas made of any kind of pavement.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “tarmac” as the “registered trade-mark of a kind of tar macadam consisting of iron slag impregnated with tar and creosote; also designating a surface made of tar macadam.”

However, the OED then notes that the phrase “the tarmac” is often used colloquially to mean an airfield or runway.

The British and American versions of the online Macmillan Dictionary go one step further and define “the tarmac” simply as “the part of an airport where the planes stop and that people walk across to get on a plane.”

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